Over the past 10 years, violence in America has continued on a downward trend, perpetuating a phenomenon that began several years earlier with the adoption of determinate sentencing practices and a movement toward incapacitation as an underlying theme across the criminal justice system. This trend has proven to be a welcome byproduct of the broad efforts at crime reduction that have emanated from nearly all aspects of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, a recent spate of violence against law enforcement officers has emphasized the chasm that currently exists between the safety and welfare of the general public and that of those individuals tasked with providing such protections.
In late March, four Oakland police officers were shot and killed in what began as a routine vehicle stop. The man driving the vehicle was a 26-year-old parolee accused of numerous violent crimes. He proceeded to shoot and kill two officers while on the vehicle stop and subsequently two others who were attempting to take him into custody later in the day. Despite its familiarity with violence, the incident rocked the community of Oakland. Less than a month later three Pittsburgh police officers were shot and killed while responding to a domestic call for service in the community of Stanton Heights. Two other officers were injured as well in a stand-off that resulted in the suspect’s surrender four hours later. More recently, four Lakewood police officers were gunned down by a crazed assassin while sitting in a coffee shop. These three incidents underscore the violent and often hostile atmosphere that our nation’s law enforcement officers confront on a daily basis.
One may have expected that the general reductions in societal violence would have extended to those in the law enforcement community as well. Unfortunately, the numbers paint a disturbing picture of violence and hostility directed toward law enforcement personnel. The Federal Bureau of Investigation compiles official data on criminal activity in the United States as documented in its annual Uniform Crime Report. Over the past 10 years, aggravated assaults committed in the United States have seen a dramatic reduction in occurrence, dropping 17.9% over the period 1999-2008. This reduction has not been matched by the number of assaults committed against police officers during the same period of time. In 1999, over 55,000 police officers were assaulted in the line of duty, resulting in an injury rate of 28%. Ten years later, those numbers remained constant. In 2008, over 58,000 police officers were assaulted in the line of duty. While the general public enjoyed a nearly 20% reduction in aggravated assault over the past ten years, police officers have seen in excess of a 5% increase in acts of violent assault committed against members of their profession.
These numbers highlight the disturbing willingness of some members of the criminal subculture to direct violence toward our nation’s law enforcement officers. Irrespective of the overall increase in safety that our citizens have enjoyed in recent years, the numbers vividly express the dangerous work atmosphere that remains the reality of law enforcement personnel. Perhaps the reductions in societal violence we have all enjoyed have come at the personal expense of those providing our protection. Perhaps the personal sacrifices of those on the front lines of America’s war on crime have provided each of us with safer and more enjoyable communities in which to live. The reality is that law enforcement personnel across the country continue to engage in progressive and proactive policing practices that have contributed to the reductions in the overall crime rate. The adoption of progressive measures of policing such as community-policing and problem-oriented policing efforts, which now constitute the prevailing paradigm of contemporary policing, has increased the interactive and collaborative nature of law enforcement. Unfortunately, these desirable outcomes continue to be obtained at the personal expense of those protecting our communities.
Additionally, the violent reality of policing in America appears to be a largely unrecognized phenomenon. Irrespective of the realities of violence directed toward law enforcement personnel, to what can we attribute the seemingly ambivalent attitude among many toward such a reality? The desensitization of society to the often violent reality of policing in America has been perpetuated through pop-culture interpretations of societal violence and the often unflattering characterization of law enforcement throughout the country. These broad characterizations, often highlighting singular acts of indiscretion not emblematic of the vast majority of law enforcement, foster an atmosphere of indifference toward law enforcement personnel. It is through this indifference that a misunderstanding of the nature of law enforcement and its achievements of recent years in crime reduction has occurred.
A greater understanding of the nature of law enforcement and the tremendous success in reducing crime that the broader law enforcement community has enjoyed in recent years can benefit not only those within the profession but those within the community as well. As a collaborative endeavor, contemporary law enforcement requires open and continued dialogue. Through that dialogue a continued decrease in crime across society can be maintained and perhaps a more unified community/law enforcement relationship can assist in lessening the increasing trend of violence committed toward law enforcement personnel.
Scott G. Erickson is a freelance writer and advocate for conservative, principled solutions to the issues facing America. He has worked in the field of law enforcement for the past decade and holds both his B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice.